KAELA ROWAN
Menagerie
(Shoogle Records)

 

In 2014, folk-rock singer Kaela Rowan released her debut solo CD Menagerie. Featuring Kaela’s vocals and songs, Menagerie is described as a combination of both Scottish and World Music sounds. Kaela gets excellent backup from her co-producer and arranger James Mackintosh. Between Kaela and James, the instrumentation blends acoustic guitars and classical guitars with exotic World Music instruments like pandeiro, kalimba, berimbau as well as a variety of percussion instruments. Kaela’s voice is front and center throughout the 11 song CD and her captivating vocal mannerisms and the intriguing instrumentation make Menagerie an excellent album start to finish. Commenting on the wide range of musical influences on Menagerie Kaela tells mwe3.com, "Scottish traditional music has doubtless informed the music of Menagerie. And for my part, I had a deep love for Gaelic song, Scots and Irish Ballad singing from a young age, so the melodies definitely have this influence in them, as I would naturally gravitate towards this sound." Speaking about working with Kaela Rowan and the creation of Menagerie, Kaela’s co-producer and band mate James Mackintosh tells mwe3, “It was good to sit down and make our own album. Speaking as someone who has spent so many years working in the studio on other peoples projects it was a real treat to make one where we both were able to make the artistic decisions. We made it in our own time and in our own space, and that is a real treat... no rush, although deadlines can be good!” Featuring 11 tracks, Kaela Rowan’s Menagerie is an enchanting album by a rising artist to keep your eyes on. www.KaelaRowan.com


mwe3.com presents an interview with
KAELA ROWAN and JAMES MACKINTOSH



mwe3
: How did you meet and how did that lead to the recording of the Menagerie CD? Where and when was the music on Menagerie written and recorded and how did you choose the CD title?

KAELA ROWAN: We were first aware of each other in high school in Lochaber in the Highlands of Scotland where we both came from. We became pals when I started playing music with my first band 'Pennycroft', with Angus Grant of the band Shooglenifty. We would turn up at the same Celidhs, parties and sessions around the highlands and in Edinburgh during the art school days. We then ended up playing in the same band – Mouth Music in the 90's together and when that folded we started another band called Sola, together with Quee MacArthur (also of Shooglenifty) around 1996. This was where we had our first music writing and recording experiences together. We only released one song, though heaps more remains in a cupboard unreleased. It was 'Set Free' on the 'Blunted 2' compilation. I believe it was released in America. Then both James and I pursued other projects until we came together again to work around 2006 or 7. Right through the 90's I had been recording material on my 4 track acoustically. I played a lot with harmony ideas as I especially loved Bulgarian and African harmony singing. I also loved Indian scales, so I footered about and filled up many tapes! I decided I wanted to put it together as an album. I was living in Leith at the time. I let James hear some of the music and he seemed keen to work on them with me and that is when Menagerie started its formation.

James Mackintosh: We met in Lochaber High School in The North West Highlands of Scotland. Friends until our teens, until one fateful day in the late 1990’s, I called Kaela as the band I was in (Mouth Music) had urgent need of a singer who sang in Gaelic, for a BBC television recording called The Late Show. We rehearsed for a couple of days and drove to London. We didn’t tell her it was live until we were on set. We worked together in Mouth Music for a few great years and after the disbanding we continued to work and write together for a few more. Then life got in the way for both of us until a few years ago when our paths crossed again and we decided, “right, let’s finally make that album!” Kaela chose the title...

mwe3: How influential was Scottish folk music on you? Would you describe the Menagerie album as being more Scottish, folk or World Music influenced?

Kaela Rowan
: I would say it is all of the above. Scottish traditional music has doubtless informed the music of Menagerie. And for my part, I had a deep love for Gaelic song, Scots and Irish Ballad singing from a young age, so the melodies definitely have this influence in them, as I would naturally gravitate towards this sound. Some are obvious more than others – such as "Ballad (And the Stars for their love did weep)" and "Apocalypse", who more closely follow the traditional form of the story telling "Ballad" and are in keeping with Scottish traditional musical scales. A lot of work songs in Gaelic are very hypnotic too and I loved that. From my days of touring with Mouth Music, I experienced a lot of music from around the world, particularly in the WOMAD festivals. I was fascinated by it. Like with the Gaelic work songs, I developed a love for cyclical patterns in music, I loved its hypnotic quality and I loved the raspy home grown metal and wood instruments used. A whole world of music was opening up to me, it was an exciting time. I loved the harmony from South African choirs to the Misa Luba. I loved Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. I loved the music of countries like Jordan, adored strong rhythm and I also developed a love of delicate musical instruments such as the kalmiba or the robust sound of the Brazilian / African Berimbau. My own singing came from Crosby Stills Nash & Young and Joan Armatrading.

James Mackintosh: That’s a nice description, thank you! Very influential, but speaking personally, no more influential than all of the above. Everything I’ve ever heard has influenced me in some way, be it pop, rock, Afro-jazz, house, etc, etc. I know Kaela was weaned on a great record collection, John Martyn to Joni Mitchell to Osibisa to Planxity and Ossian, and we both grew up in the acoustic session environment, so I guess fairly influential, so glad if it shows through. The integrity of it would be a good influence.

mwe3: You play a range of exotic World Music instruments including kalimba and berimbau. What made you want to combine exotic instruments on the Menagerie CD? Can you tell us about your guitars and how would you describe your guitar style? How about keyboards or special computer programs that you feature on the CD?

Kaela Rowan: I have mentioned above some instruments, I also love the jaw harp which did not make it on the album, but will in the next one... It seemed like a very natural thing to do. Both James and I have a great love of interesting percussive instruments from around the world. Perhaps we were aware that it was broadening the atmosphere a bit more than if we were just using traditional Scottish instruments, but it was not a very conscious decision, they were just the instruments we naturally reached for because of our love for them. We have a rather nice collection of things gathered over the years in the house. As for guitar style – well, I grew up on a fare few John Martyn albums and so I must have picked up a bit of guitar slap style from him I reckon. He was an amazing writer, singer and musician. Other instrumentalists that influenced me were Joan Armatrading, James Taylor, Neil Young. I loved all their guitar work. I also loved Dick Guaghan 's open tuning style and Planxty's Donal Lunny and his rhythmic playing. I of course loved the American country style playing of Little Feat and the Grateful Dead, two other great loves of mine. Och, too many more to mention....

James Mackintosh: We‘ve always loved the kalimba. I finally bought one, a tenor model that has an electric pick up and records really well. As a percussionist it’s great to play. We wanted different textures so we played whatever came to hand and we couldn’t really afford lots of session players, so our palette was restricted to what we both play. The berimbau was played by our great friend and colleague Quee MacArthur, who became quite adept at it during his Capouiera infatuation a few years back. You have to watch out when he starts - he’s a big guy. The only keyboard sounds are a couple of samples I made up and tweaked myself, apart from the live piano on “Naïve Melody” which was played by Donald Shaw, of Capercaillie, a good friend and colleague.

mwe3: Prior to Menagerie, what other albums did you record? I saw Kaela’s name with the band’s Mouth Music and Shooglenifty, so can you tell us about your past recorded works and how they compare to Menagerie?

Kaela Rowan
: I recorded four albums with Mouth Music. My favourite is Mo Di as I feel it is a very accomplished album and when we played that material live it totally rocked, some of the best gigs of my life. I sung mostly in Gaelic unless doing BV's (backing vocals) for Jackie Joyce, the other front vocalist. I loved singing harmonies together and playing percussive parts on various strange instruments. We played around with atonal harmony, made very popular then by Bulgarian groups. Martin Swan was the main arranger of that project. Mo Di actually did very well in the Billboard World Music charts if I remember rightly. The others were Shore Life, where I really just sang a whole manner of crazy world music style vocals, if there's a strange vocal sound there – it was likely me who made it. Then a big gap and a couple more acoustic albums around 2002 and 2003. Then when Sea Faring Man and The Order of Things... I sung in both Gaelic and English on these albums. These were Martin Swan's arrangements and he was a stickler for a clean sound. I'm not as big a fan of this, I think it's a bit overrated – maybe being brought up on vinyl. I prefer a wee bit of grit about my music.

James Mackintosh: Well, I was a founding member of Shooglenifty back in 1990 and I’ve also been a session musician since my 20’s. I’ve played with Mouth Music, Cappercaillie, Michael McGoldrick, The String Sisters, The Transatlantic Sessions including James Taylor, Pattie Griffin, Tim O’ Brian etc etc ,Ross Ainslie, John McKusker, Tejedor, Duncan Chisholm... I better stop, there’s been a fair few.

It was good to sit down and make our own album. Speaking as someone who has spent so many years working in the studio on other peoples projects it was a real treat to make one where we both were able to make the artistic decisions. We made it in our own time and in our own space, and that is a real treat... no rush, although deadlines can be good!

mwe3: What was it like making the trip to Jodphur for the 2013 and 2014 RIFF festivals? I saw the videos tell us about some really exotic scenes there! You’re unique in that you use some really strange instruments and combine a spacey almost New Age vibe in places.

Kaela Rowan: Well, sitting in a room with 5 of the most incredible Rajasthani traditional musicians and singers was a moment, or actually a few days, I will never forget. They were all men and all from the desert and they told me they got about on Camels. They were members of Khan family of Manganiar and were of Muslim faith. They were wrapped in the most beautiful cotton clothes, the older men sporting amazing mustaches and proudly wearing bright orange, yellow and red coloured turbans – the older men wore them all the time and the younger for more formal occasions, like the gig we did together. Sitting in the room next to Diyam Khan and Kasam Khan singing right next to me, moved me to my core. They had huge voices. They sang from some where deep deep inside, that seemed to connect back in time through centuries, back to their ancestors, back to their story as a people. The tambour, the scales, the ancient stories and tales they sang, the very vibration from their chest cavities, the complete commitment to their song, and the obvious big love of their music. They lived and breathed their musical traditions. It was quite an honor to spend this time with them. In fact we all became good pals. I sang with both of them on the main stage at the Jodphur RIFF in 2013 in a fantastic musical collaboration. I often think of them playing and singing away in their villages, with life going on around them as normal.

James Mackintosh: It’s an extraordinary festival. Divya Bhatia, the director, invited us over after hearing Kaela sing in Glasgow, and she was the first non-devotional singer to perform the dawn concert, on the grounds of the Meranghar fortress, from dark through sunrise, on an ancient Maharaja’s funeral dais. The audience are sleeping on mattresses and you start your performance at 5 am in the dark, so we especially arranged a set of music to bring them into the day gently... we must record it one day. The musicianship of the Rajasthanis, their hospitality and the inspiration they gave us was extraordinary. It’s one of the best festivals. Go there!

mwe3: Who were some of your big musical influences and how do you feel it comes out in your music? I did see names like Kate Bush and Ivor Cutler on your Facebook page! I remember Ivor from the movie Magical Mystery Tour and his albums on Virgin were quite bizarre.

James Mackintosh: Yes, it’s true we both share a love of Kate Bush’s work. We went to one of her gigs in London last year. I would have gone home happy after the first 5 songs... then the show started! I have many disparate influences, from Kraftwerk to Ivor Cutler, to Planxty then over to Ennio Morricone and Miles Davis... hopefully they all come out in the music in the spirit of exploration, emotion and expression.

Kaela Rowan: How long have you got....? I developed a great love for Ivor Cutler back in the 1980's and was lucky enough to see him play in Edinburgh. He was quite a cult figure and I found him very funny... it may help being Scottish to get his humor! However I also loved his delicate simplistic songs. Harmonically gorgeous and most often from a child's point of view, with a delightful innocence and gentleness about them. There's not enough of that in this world... I loved Crosby Stills and Nash, the warmth of their sound, the enveloping harmony that could cradle you on a summers evening. I love the song writing of Joan Armatrading and Neil Young. I particularly liked their acoustic work. Kate Bush with her uncompromising song writing and atmosphere, particularly Hounds of Love. My moment in the album has to be when the Gregorian chant happens, simply spell binding and so clever. We were lucky enough to get tickets to see her last year in her London Hammersmith show. Another huge love of mine is the incredible and mighty Dick Gaughan. A Hand full of Earth is possibly the biggest album of my life. Other big loves were Massive Attack and Portishead, with their dark and brooding grooves. Bjork, for her incredible inventiveness and at that time, she had the ultimate refreshing and creative sound - kind of a raw techno singer - songwriter. I also grew up on many Bob Marley albums, Dark Side Of The Moon and Wish You Were Here, plus Carmina Burana which blew my head off at the age of three and I remember it. Apparently I could sing the whole album. Nina Simone and Billie Holliday are also great loves. Ladies of great power. They must all have seeped into my musical genes in a myriad of ways. I have expressed elements of them all Im sure. I love the way musicians are an undefinable brew of musical soup from their own culture and way way beyond.

mwe3: How did you collaborate on writing the Menagerie songs and can you tell us about the recording process on the CD? Was it done live in the studio or were there a lot of overdubs? The CD sound is fantastic so clearly a lot of work went into it.

James Mackintosh: Kaela had a lot of songs hanging around her old analogue four track, so we listened through, and began from there. I think, with “Mon Ami”, at my place in The Scottish Borders. It’s a big old open plan schoolhouse with nice acoustics, so we went in for a few days at a time with my pro tools set up, a few nice mics and layered it up gradually, maybe a guitar guide one day, kit or percussion the next day. Then in a very relaxed fashion we worked on the final mix with the aforementioned Quee (Quee) MacArthur up in his studio in Fife, and then mastered it with the brilliant Calum Malcolm (The Blue Nile, Prefab Sprout etc.) at his studio in East Lothian. The next album will be totally live, 4 mics, and we’ll have it finished in one week max.

mwe3: Is there a track from the Menagerie CD that you’re getting more airplay on? Are different genres picking up o different tracks some are more folk and some are more alt-folk. How has radio and press been in Scotland, England and in other countries? I would think there’d be a lot of interest in your sound world wide.

Kaela Rowan: "Apocalypse" and "Ballad" got a lot of airplay on Radio Scotland, Radio Nan Gaidheal and Radio Wales on Folk and Traditional Music shows. The UK wide Radio 3 favoured "Apocalypse" on their World On 3 show, which was lovely and a fare few regional folk and World music radio stations picked it up in England too. One of our main UK wide national stations - Radio 6 Music played "Naive Melody", our David Byrne song, which was nice. We still have a lot more promo to do. We got distracted by the referendum last year and worked hard on the campaign for independence. So we will be doing this more in 2015. We have had some really nice reviews of Menagerie – most of them are up on the website.

James Mackintosh: It’s odd, Gaelic radio (BBC Scotland) has been playing every track, even though it’s not in Gaelic and there’s been a fairly generous smattering across different stations over here. Some both National Radio 2, Radio 6, and various shows on Radio Scotland and BBC Ireland, and local stations across the whole country. No idea about worldwide, although there have been a few purchases from Japan so they must have heard it somehow, now there’s somewhere we’d like to go!

mwe3: Who are you listening to and even in the same genre with musically these days? Are there other artists in the 21st century folk / World Beat sound that you consider cutting edge?

Kaela Rowan
: At the moment I like Lisa Knapp from England and Kirsty Law from the Scottish Borders. Both doing trad singing in inventive ways.

mwe3: How do you balance your professional careers with life? What are the ways you spend your down time in order to relax and rejuvenate yourselves?

Kaela Rowan: I only wish we had pets, I long for the day we can have dog for a constant pal, but life does not allow that yet. I like to walk along the river Tweed, it is a very beautiful and peaceful river. We both enjoy a good film and of course reading. Playing music ironically, thats always a lovely thing to do. Walks on Portibello beach with family that kind of thing.

James Mackintosh: We’ll I’m about to have my first proper holiday for a couple of years, and mostly I relax by doing a bit of cooking and DIY in the aforementioned place where we recorded our album is never ending, it’s a labor of love.

mwe3: What is the plan for 2015 as far as live shows, writing and recording new music? I know you’re finishing a new album with Shooglenifty. How will that compare sound wise with the Menagerie album?

Kaela Rowan
: The Shooglenifty album is very different. For a start it id mostly in Gaelic. Its going back to one of my great loves – 'Puirt a beul', which means tunes of the mouth and it is literally singing tunes, but with amazing rhythmic words. These songs were used during repetitive work hence their hypnotic quality and when instruments were banned in certain areas in the islands they sang to make up for it, so some of these kinds of songs must have blossomed as a result. You just can't repress music in people, it comes out no matter how you try to stop it! We will be recording an album predominantly of ballads and a few Gaelic songs too, the ones I sang when I was a lot younger. I thought it would be really nice to document that part of my musical life. The aim is to release this by mid July, or thereabouts. This album will be more simple and sparse, and we are setting up some touring in Scotland mostly Sept / Oct / Nov 2015 to tour both albums. Please feel free to invite us over – we would of course be delighted!

James Mackintosh: Yes we’re hoping to gig more this year. Plans are afoot. We played a couple of slots at Woodford Folk Festival in Queensland in January past and they went really well, Although it looks like Shooglenifty’s 25th anniversary year and album will take up most of the summer, we’ve got gigs from Borneo to Brittany and quite a few in between. The Shooglenifty sound is more high energy kind of punk, raucous dance music. We were 6 instrumental guys before we invited Kaela in. Her contribution is amazing though, it’s great to hear Scots Gaelic sung amidst some grit and dirt, and of course she can rock as hard as any guy, if not harder) so look out for the album, around May called The Untied Knot.





 

 
   
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